959.9. That’s the Dewey Decimal classification for the Philippines, the country author Grace Talusan’s parents fled when she was two years old, amid the brutal dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. They wouldn’t return, not even to visit, for 19 years. The young Talusan had questions about her homeland, and the library offered answers her parents couldn’t.
Exile is one of several themes Talusan explores in her memoir The Body Papers, winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing. She and Nathan Rostron, editor and marketing director of Restless Books—an imprint dedicated to international authors writing in English—participated in a June 22 panel discussion on the challenges faced by immigrant authors who can’t go home.
Talusan spoke of the culture of fear that followed her family and many others who had fled the Marcos regime: “I learned to be afraid to tell stories and say the wrong thing, because something I say could impact a family member back in the Philippines, or even someone who shares one of my last names. I waited until a lot of those relatives died, and that’s when I finally felt comfortable sharing my stories.”
Syrian refugees face a similar quandary. Panelist Karen Fisher, professor at the University of Washington Information School, has worked with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, since 2014 to promote literacy in the Za’atari refugee camp, now Jordan’s fourth-largest city, where she helped implement a camp-wide library system. “One of the reasons you cannot find books by Syrian authors, it has to do with the consequences of the regime,” Fisher said. “There is so much censorship and oppression.”
Other contexts produce more complex challenges. Rostron spoke of Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, the first winner of the Restless Books prize. The author and his family are natives of India who live and work in the United Arab Emirates, but who face deportation upon their retirement due to their legal status as “temporary guest workers.”
“The stories are very surreal, because he’s trying to describe a surreal living situation,” Rostron said. “How do you characterize a place that you’re from but that does not claim you, that rejects your right to call it home?”